What Happened to Joseph White?

The story of the last American soldier to defect to North Korea.

A better explanation might be found in White’s personality. All of his life he had sought the comfort of authority and indicated his desire to subjugate his will to a higher purpose. The North Korea he entered was not unlike the state militia and right wing state he had advocated for Missouri. His devotion to the Catholic Church was amplified to the nth degree in the state worship of the so-called Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Like many extremists, White had little trouble switching the form his belief took, as long as it fulfilled his need to be controlled by a higher purpose. Like Lee Harvey Oswald before him and Timothy McVeigh after, White found a way station in the military before giving himself over to an even more authoritarian culture.

White’s parents were shocked when in February 1983 they received a letter from their son. He claimed he was happy and working as an English tutor. He asked for a dictionary and an almanac but said nothing about his defection. It was the only word the Whites ever received from him.

Finally, on November 5, 1985, on what would have been their son’s 24th birthday, the Whites received another letter from North Korea. The writer claimed that Joseph drowned in the Chongchon River during an outing with friends. The letter alleged that one of his new friends heroically tried to save him but both drowned and their bodies were never recovered.

It may be true, but it probably isn’t. Perhaps White found happiness in the rigid discipline and mandated worship of Kim Il-sung, at least for a time. Perhaps he happily began his days with supervised calisthenics, proudly wearing the portrait of the Great Leader on his shirt, spending an hour midday attending lectures, then after work attending several more hours of indoctrination before returning to a cinder block apartment decorated with pictures of the self-styled God. Or maybe he soon realized his decision was a mistake, and the North Koreans simply disposed of him after prodding him for information. Whatever happened to White is known only to the most repressive regime on the planet, and the truth may never be known to the outside world.

Greg Bailey is the St. Louis correspondent for The Economist, a freelance writer and a reconsidering attorney.

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